Slumming It With Michael Kimmelman

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Everyone's favorite slum! (Cooper-Hewitt)

So far Michael Kimmelman has delivered his thoughts on how to build better public housing developments, how to build better libraries, how to build better civic architecture in general. He steps away from praising the Bloomberg administration for a bit in his two latest dispatches, but the message remains pleasantly the same: architecture is everywhere, and it has a special power to shape our lives. Even those hippies down on Wall Street get it.

Kent State, Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall: we clearly use locales, edifices, architecture to house our memories and political energy. Politics troubles our consciences. But places haunt our imaginations.

So we check in on Facebook and Twitter, but make pilgrimages to Antietam, Auschwitz and to the Acropolis, to gaze at rubble from the days of Pericles and Aristotle.

I thought of Aristotle, of all people, while I watched the Zuccotti Park demonstrators hold one of their “general assemblies” the other day. In his “Politics,” Aristotle argued that the size of an ideal polis extended to the limits of a herald’s cry. He believed that the human voice was directly linked to civic order. A healthy citizenry in a proper city required face-to-face conversation.

Aristotle? That’s a down-right Muschampian reference. Mr. Kimmelman is really catching on.

Joking aside, though, his point about “the common ground” of protest is an enlightening one. After all, the Occupy Wall Street protests are probably the first ones made possible by a zoning loophole. It has brought attention not only to POPS, a term that had heretofore been absent from the city’s lexicon, but the developers behind them, the very way they build the city, and how we come to inhabit it.

But not everybody has it as good as those yupsters with their cardboard signs. What about the slums and favelas and banlieues the world over, the lifeblood of globalism? They can benefit from some smart design, too, as Mr. Kimmelman celebrates while walking through the United Nations. He is actually there for an expansion of the Cooper-Hewitt show “Design With the Other 90 Percent: Cities,” which first opened in 2007 as “Design for the Other 90 Percent.” The ways in which slums around the world are being reborn, and saving their inhabitants, is the focus this time.

While he may not realize he is making the point, it strikes The Observer that, in some small way, the 90 percent has it a bit better than the rest of us when it comes to design.

The 2007 exhibition set the stage for this larger undertaking about whole cities, which couldn’t be timelier. We live in an era of unprecedented urban migration. Ms. Smith mentioned the billion people living in informal settlements, or slums. That number is projected to double by 2030, triple by 2050, according to the United Nations Human Settlements Program. By then one of three people on the planet will supposedly be living in favelas in Brazil, barrios in Ecuador, shack settlements in South Africa, bidonvilles in Tunisia or chapros in Nepal — the names are nearly as endless as the number of these sprawling, unplanned, impoverished places.

Ms. Smith spent a couple of years seeing what designers have been doing to improve living conditions in them. As at Bang Bua, one lesson seems strikingly obvious: the need to solicit the people living in poverty to come up with their own solutions. In so many slums — Dharavi in Mumbai, India; Corail in Bangladesh; Cape Town, South Africa; and in American cities too — the poor are left out of the process. But urban-renewal projects always work best when they’re ground up, not top down.

Would we want to live in any of these places? Of course not. But in New York, where so many developments are fait accompli, it is intriguing to know that there are others enjoying a better process just as they work toward a better life.

At the end of his review, Mr. Kimmelman informs us that he is hoping to check out “a few of the cities the show celebrates, to see how they’re doing, firsthand.” This is wonderful news, more contemplative, conscious criticism. But The Observer is actually starting to pine for a time when Mr. Kimmelman might actually pick up one of those starchitect-y projects his predecessor so loved. A plain vanilla review of a building based purely on aesthetic grounds—it’s what we’d come to expect from The Times and what we figured we would get from its newest architecture critic. He has surprised and yet not dissappointed, but after all these hearty meals, how about a little dessert?

mchaban [at] observer.com | @MC_NYC